Consistency, we are told, is a good thing. Just keep that nose to the grindstone, that pedal to the metal, that eye on the prize, and you'll get what you deserve (as well as a dictionary of clichés). No one in the indie music world adheres to this rule more closely than Bob Wratten. While the British songwriter's first group, the Field Mice, occasionally upended expectations with its lengthy electronic experiments, Wratten's output since the Sarah Records outfit's 1991 breakup has been as inflexible as granite.
Part of Wratten's problem — as well as the reason millions, or rather hundreds, of people adore him — is his chosen style. Wratten writes sad, confessional lyrics about how his love life sucks, then wraps those maudlin statements in pretty, lo-fi synth, drum machine, and guitar parts (a sound Melody Maker once called “the Byrds on a wrist-watch radio”). And Wratten's consistency only gets worse: He wrote the last Field Mice record, For Keeps, about the beginning of his relationship with the band's second singer, Annemari Davies; the first two records for his latest group, the Trembling Blue Stars, covered the couple's breakup. Even more bizarre was the reappearance of Davies on TBS's 1998 effort, Lips That Taste of Tears, on which the singer crooned words her ex-lover had written about her. By last year's LP, the ickily titled Broken by Whispers, Wratten seemed to be nearing the end of his obsession: Sentiments like “Sometimes I still feel the bruise” felt more like last gasps than primal screams.
Alive to Every Smile is the sound of Wratten moving on, albeit slowly. Davies and Field Mice co-founder Michael Hiscock have been replaced by, well, more Sarah Records alums and an ex-Field Mouse (keyboardist Harvey Williams). And Wratten's still singing about his love life and how it sucks. But it's not quite back to the grindstone.
The first track, “Under Lock and Key,” shows Wratten's long-dormant raucous side, with swirling synth and guitar that appeal in a post-Radiohead way. (The press kit's suggestion, however, that Nirvana could cover the tune in another universe must have Kurt Cobain rolling over in his grave.) Wratten and longtime producer Ian Catt appear to be aiming for a big studio sound: “The Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss” features intertwining vocals and a backward guitar hook that begs to be played on modern rock radio. “Little Gunshots” has a bossa nova feel, “With Every Story” lifts a thick guitar riff from the Cure, and “Haunted Days” recalls the airy synth-pop of the mid-'80s, replete with atmospheric female vocals and tinkly percussion.
The oddest changes are in Wratten's lyrics and delivery. He's far less interested in picking his scabs, as if he's grown tired of his own moroseness. Perhaps he truly believes his own line from “Under Lock and Key”: “You've got to grow up/ You've got to stop making her cry.”